Sky High Celebration

The New York State Festival of Balloons Celebrates Its 36th Year in Dansville

Story by Derek Doeffinger
Photos by Derek Doeffinger and Gary Whelpley

What does the small rural town of Dansville have in common with cosmopolitan Paris, the fashion and sophistication capital of the world? The answer is the hot air balloon. It was in Paris in 1783 that the Montgolfier brothers invented hot air ballooning. But it was in Dansville in 1981 that the art of the balloon festival began to be perfected.

This Labor Day weekend you can enjoy that perfection and watch in wonder as up to 40 glorious hot air balloons float across the skies of Dansville like raindrop-shaped lollypops. It’s truly a sight to behold, and almost everything about the festival (including getting in and out) is easy and enjoyable.

Now in its 36th year, the festival remains a favorite of balloon pilot Greg Livadas, who has been to every single one since the start: “I have flown over Niagara Falls, next to the Swiss Alps, the Black Hills of South Dakota and out in Albuquerque….but I can honestly say Dansville is among the most beautiful places to fly in a balloon.” 

And a great place to watch them. It’s like watching a time-lapse nature film of tulips sprouting, elongating, forming buds, and then suddenly unfolding into beautiful multi-colored blossoms.

The balloon festival takes place at the Dansville airport, which lies near the southern end of the broad, sweeping valley that funnels into this small town of 5,000. Starting at 6 p.m. Friday night (September 1), balloon launches will occur on the sixes morning and evening until the final lift off at 6 a.m. Monday, weather permitting.

Although the balloons may be the big draw, there’s lots to do before they make their appearance. This is, after all, a festival. With the grounds opening at 10 a.m., you can find plenty of food and arts and craft booths to snack and browse at, and a large festival tent to relax in and shelter from the sun. Music acts provide entertainment as does a classic car show on Sunday. And Stony Brook State Park is just a few miles down the road if you want to hike or wade in waterfalls.

Most of the kids flock to the semi-inflated balloon envelope. Once inside it they run and play while parents take their pictures. Another kid favorite and recent trend in hot air balloons are the “shaped” balloons: a birthday cake complete with candles and cartoon characters such as Sylvester, Tweetie Bird, and Peg Leg Pete—all as tall as an office building.

The essence of hot air ballooning is to capture and heat a large bubble of air and then ride it into the skies. In many ways each launch is an act of whimsy, a release of self control to the fates. Though the pilot can control the altitude of the balloon, he or she is nearly powerless to control its direction. Not a sport for control freaks.

Ballooning is an odd combination of science and fairy tale. As you watch the half hour or so it takes to unpack, arrange, set up, connect the components, and inflate the balloon, you’ll see the science apparatus being assembled that will lift a payload of a 1000 or more pounds into the sky. A big “Bunsen” burner heats the balloon air to provide buoyancy. That heat expands air molecules making them lighter than those surrounding the balloon so it can float—thousands of feet into the sky.

Two different sets of components form the balloon. There’s the actual balloon for holding air, and there’s the basket (called a gondola) for holding the things used to heat the air and fly the balloon.

Made of ripstop nylon, the balloon envelope, when inflated, stands 80 to 90 feet fall and encloses about 80,000 cubic feet of air; that amount of air weighs over 6000 pounds. The top of the balloon features a couple of vent flaps with lines reaching the basket so the pilot can open and close the vents to control the altitude of the balloon. 

Designed to hold people and equipment, the basket is usually made of wicker. It is lightweight, strong, flexible, durable, and striking in appearance. The basket provides a means of attaching the balloon, and holds a couple of propane tanks, the burner, and the pilot and passengers. In all a fully outfitted balloon costs about $40,000, (and that doesn’t include the van or truck necessary to transport it all).

When all is ready for the launch, the science part gives way to the fairy tale. With one pull of the blast valve, 20-foot dragon flames shoot into the balloon and the fairy tale comes to life. Startled passengers clasp their hands to their ears and wonder if it’s too late to climb out of the basket. Balloon wranglers leap into action, struggling to control the balloon. Several surround and grab the basket of the suddenly awakened balloon beast and pin it captive to the ground. Two or three others tug with all their might against the ropes stretching to the balloon top. But the balloon, awakened and inflamed by the heat, can’t be restrained much longer. It rises upright and struggles for freedom against its captors.

With the balloon upright and straining for freedom, passengers reveal expressions both fearful and hopeful. The pilot gives a signal (there’s no turning back now), and, suddenly, the beast is freed and rises, like the giant bubble it is, into the sky, hundreds of feet, then thousands, headed to unknown lands, carried along by uncontrollable winds.

That’s the fairy tale part. A bit fanciful, right? But for anybody taking their first balloon ride (see sidebar), the fairy tale almost seems real. Once you’re in the air, the excitement and anxiety relax and serenity settles in. “Our ride was incredibly breathtaking. It was a surprise from my husband for our 45th wedding anniversary,” recalls Laurie Marriott. “I’d do it again,” she says.

The reigning theme among the pilots is safety. “Our top priority is safety,” emphasizes Rick Kohut, this year’s balloonmeister. He and his team work with the FAA to make sure all regulations and processes are followed and that all the pilots and their equipment meet those regulations.

About an hour after launch, the ever vigilant pilot—gps equipped and in constant radio contact with his pursuit team—begins to consider landing places. He’d prefer a large, empty field near a road. A place with no crops to damage, cows to frighten, or trees to interfere. What he prefers and what the winds allow don’t always concur. 

As the sun nears the horizon, he spots the place that will work for this trip. He opens valve flaps to release hot air so the balloon begins its descent. A brief burst of flame to slow the descent so he’ll reach the field. Hearing the burner’s blast, a farm family runs out of the house, hands shading their eyes, to look up at the balloon.

Before the balloon touches down, the pilot makes sure passengers are holding tight. Tension mounts as the ground nears. Traveling at the speed of a walker or jogger, the balloon hits, bounces lightly once, twice (passengers scream in excitement), then driven by the light breeze skids to a stop in about fifteen feet. The passengers climb out, chattering excitedly. The pilot follows with one hand extended to the landowner and the other handing over a bottle of bubbly (with or without alcohol).

Meanwhile the pursuit crew has already started disassembling and packing up the balloon. All need to hurry back to their homestay at a volunteer Dansville family and get some rest before tomorrow’s dawn flight.

Getting a ride

At the festival you can pay $15 ($10 for kids under 12) to float up about 85 feet in a tethered balloon.

To schedule a full balloon ride (about $200/person) during a festival balloon launch, go to the festival website and look on the left side of the home pagefor ride information:

First timers will find watching the land quickly

recede exciting; however the liftoff and ride are exceedingly smooth. You probably won’t go higher than 2000-3000 feet. The touchdown of the balloon can be a bit bumpy as the basket may briefly drag and bump along the ground until the balloon is deflated.

Going to see the balloons

The great thing about the balloon festival is how easy it is to get in and out of there. It’s right next to exit 5 of I-390. On your map app, enter Meter Road, Dansville, and it will take you to the parking lot.

Here are specific directions:  Get off at exit 5 of I-390; go north a very short distance and turn left onto Rt. 36; go 0.4 miles and turn right onto Hartman Road, follow it for ¼ mile and turn left onto Meter Road, which will take you to the parking lot.

Entrance fee $5/person; kids under 12 free.

Six scheduled launches beginning Friday,

6 PM, Saturday and Sunday 6 AM & 6 PM, Monday 6 AM.

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